The Humanists: Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth


by Colin Marshall

On its surface, Night on Earth is nothing but people talking in taxicabs. The untold production hassle involved in this supposedly simple setup — towing gear, elaborate car-mounted lighting, routes to be driven and re-driven with each and every take — represents a truth about pretty much every Jim Jarmusch film: what doesn’t look like much in one sense turns out, in others, to actually be quite a lot. This holds especially true for for his choppier black-and-white pictures of the 1980s which, to the untrained eye, offered little more than slouchy characters walking, running, and standing around. Night on Earth is substantially glossier, in its own way, than those early projects, but it also manages to be more accessible than the even slicker productions that would follow. Purists might argue that, as penance, the movie has wound up as one of Jarmusch’s least seen; purists might argue that, but I won’t.

Whether intentionally or accidentally, Night on Earth proves difficult to write about without digging in the mothballs for a set of clichés tiring even to ponder. Taxicab stories force the lazy critic’s hand: if you don’t talk about the liminal state — the “non-place” — of such a temporary, disposable, rattly means of transit, you’ll probably talk about the distinctive short-term commercio-social dynamic between rider and driver. This is safer territory for a filmmaker like Jarmusch, whose deadly allergy to cliché demands that, for his own safety, he keep these risk factors at a distance. I assume the all-knowing, cigarette-bottomed, somehow unironically ironic deadpan stare of the 1970s NYC hipster by way of Akron scares them, as it would you or I.

Nevertheless, the forces of temperance seem to have come down just slightly harder on this film than on the rest of the Jarmusch canon. I consider it modern cinema’s loss, however slight, that Night on Earth lost its original title, Losangelesnewyorkparisromehelsinki. That word search, which contains the film’s five locations, wields the advantage of specificity, not to mention truth in advertising. Night, sure. Earth? Well, America’s biggest coastal cities, the two most romanticized ones in continental Europe, and one in, uh, Finland. It’s a point both for and against the movie that you wonder if Buenos Aires, Bombay, or Tokyo lay buried on a cutting room floor somewhere.

Each darkened city has its own cab, its own driver, and its own passengers; these form separate segments that, happily, share nothing else. It would have taken a certain art to tie all these vignettes together with common characters, incidents, or structures, but that’s not Jarmusch’s art. On the broadest level, each scene is about a different relationship between a cabbie and their fares, but these relationships are different enough that, in saying that, I’m not saying much of anything. Do I get any closer to the truth with the claim that that, in all five cities, Jarmusch harnesses the rich, creatively nourishing randomness generated by the matching of people in need of a ride with drivers in need of about fifteen bucks?

The film doesn't open strong. After a series of striking morning (!) shots of the decaying mid-century public kitsch that Los Angeles fans like myself are simultaneously enamored of and haunted by, hours pass instantly, a plane lands, and a Hollywood casting agent has to get home to Beverly Hills. Victoria lowers her cellphone’s antenna — the year was 1991 — just as Corky, a girl dressed in what looks like a drag king’s cabbie costume, hangs up her nearby payphone. Turning toward one another, the movie’s first driver and passenger connect.

The teenage Corky, all baggy clothes and chirpy snarl, and the sixtysomething Victoria, who actually travels with one of those circular pieces of luggage whose name I would look up but don’t want to know, are mismatched with disheartening precision. “Okay, mom,” the younger woman groans when the older one tells her to shut off her boombox. But certain commonalities emerge, mostly to do with cigarettes and man trouble, and by the end of the ride Victoria gets to thinking that she might have the world's next starlet on her hands. Rebuffing Victoria’s sudden offer of stardom (“Everybody wants to be a movie star!”), Corky explains that she wants to be a mechanic, and she’s more or less got life all lined up to achieve that. None of those distracting trailers, press junkets, and soft-focus close-ups for her, thanks.

There’s something tiresome in this rejection of ephemeral Hollywood fame for the gritty, greasy, workaday — dare I say it, even in scare quotes — “real” existence of the driver and mechanic. To be fair, the segment doesn’t come off as an endorsement of either Corky or Victoria’s worldview, and it retains its own easy charm, but it isn’t the equal of the segments that follow. A lifetime of watching Jim Jarmusch films has convinced me that he’s at his best when he specifies the least. If you believe this, the film’s first segment illustrates what doesn’t quite work when his characters lay out just a little bit too much of themselves. The rest of the segments occupy other points on the spectra of explanation and interestingness; the farther to the left on the former, the farther to the right on the latter.

The second segment, in New York, offers Helmut, an East German driver and a former clown who seems not to understand how to operate a motor vehicle. (In one of the movie’s best and most inexplicable touches, he insists on haltingly propelling the cab with alternating steps on the gas and the brake.) YoYo, a man as desperate to get back home to Brooklyn as Helmut is for a customer — their other similarities include wearing the same floppy-earflapped hunting hats — will pay a fare on condition the he, not Helmut, drive the car. Along the way, YoYo pulls over and picks up — kidnaps, practically — his feisty sister-in-law. They scream at one another all the way to Brooklyn. What’s the nature of their dispute? Why has Helmut taken a job based on a skill he obviously does not possess? The questions are more fascinating than the answers, which Jarmusch leaves in their proper place, ever could be.

Paris and Rome enjoy their own ambiguities. In the first city, a stone-featured Ivorian driver dumps his pair of African officials, soused and eager to seize an opportunity to exercise the uniquely savage ridicule one country outsiders haven’t heard of has for another nearby country outsiders haven’t heard of. He picks up a blind girl who turns out to be even harsher, responding with nothing but contempt for his curious questions about life, cinema, and sex as experienced by the sightless. The second city’s driver is a flamboyant logorrheic with with a pair of driving gloves, a bank of bizarre masturbatory stories, and a penchant for heading the other way on one-way streets. He responds to a call from a man who may or may not be a bishop but definitely has a bad heart and a low tolerance for the image of Roberto Benigni making love to a pumpkin.

But Night on Earth’s most critically appreciated segment comes last, in Helsinki. Yes, one of these places is not like the others. Amid urban Finland’s snowbanks, its discomfiting wee-hour light, its hail of unpredictable consonants, and its vaguely out-of-scale buildings set on wide, empty streets, a sad mustachioed cabbie picks up an even sadder trio of drunks. In a feat of human structural engineering, they all stand, propped against one another, yet all sleep. The two who first regain consciousness tell the bleak story of the third, who in the past 24 hours lost his job, car, wife, and daughter. Not to be outdone, the man behind the wheel recalls the source of his own working-class woe, which involves a failed attempt to quash his own love for a doomed premature child. This sounds like the most straightforward segment of them all, but it feels like the least; something remains intriguingly incomplete, despite the lack of identifiable loose ends.

In what’s effectively five short films united by the form of commerce that brings their characters into close proximity, Jarmusch reveals a surprisingly wide range of both his strengths and his weaknesses. If some of its choices seem insufficiently bold, given what’s become his standard — pieces of this film seem surprisingly middle-of-the-road, as it were, given that they come from the man behind Stranger Than Paradise and Dead Man — the project as a whole has boldness to spare. Yet I can’t help think that the really daring move would be not to have released the same picture under the name Losangelesnewyorkparisromehelsinki, but to put it out, after a complete reshuffle, as Helsinkiromeparisnewyorklosangeles.

All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.